Jesuits: Why Do They Hate Us? Why Do They Love Us?

Jesuits LincolnPreaching to fellow Jesuits can always be a challenge, especially when the Gospel reading begins, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first . . . ‘”  I did just that today, and received some good feedback.  And though the intended audience was primarily Jesuits, other friends were also interested in what I came up with.  There are insights here that I think both Jesuits and non-jesuits can appreciate it.  So, here it is:

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis, columnist George Weigel wrote in The National Review:

The first Jesuit pope? [in bold, with a question mark] Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.  Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth—qualities not notable for their prevalence among members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century.”

Not a wholly unexpected observation from Weigel who is not known for being shy in expressing his lack of affection for the Society of Jesus.  He and others are well-known for making broad, sweeping statements about the perceived failings of most Jesuits today.  We might ask: Why do they hate us?  I once elicited a response from Richard John Neuhaus on this very question when I accused him of mischaracterizing the Society in a similar way.  His response was almost literally: “I don’t hate Jesuits.  Some of my best friends are Jesuits.”

We often don’t ask, “Why do they hate us?”  Instead, we wear it is a badge of honor.  Insisting, in the spirit of today’s Gospel, that it must be an indication that we are doing something right.  And, rather than lament the fact that some are so easily inclined to criticize us so, we point to such persecution as an example of getting what we prayed for in the Spiritual Exercises.  Though we might find some justification for this, perhaps we might hesitate to be too self-congratulatory.

I have made something of a hobby analyzing the various forms of “hate” leveled at the Society.  In the case of most of those who are generous and far too quick with their criticism, I think relatively few of them can truly be characterized as “hating” us, even perhaps George Weigel.  Strangely enough, many of them even claim a great love for the Society, but they love an idealized, romanticized version of the Society that likely never existed.  And since they rightly recognize that we are not that Society, they will be perpetually unsatisfied.  Yet, still I think we do well to listen to what they have to say.  Indeed, hasn’t George Weigel described the new Pope in precisely the way we would hope to describe ourselves, as men “formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth.”  It seems to me that this is far more prevalent than he recognizes, but also indeed an ideal that we sometimes fail to live up to.  We might wonder instead: Why is it that he and others fail to see this?  I have many theories, but I won’t ply you with them now.

But the strange truth, I have found, is that those who heap praise upon us are just as likely not to see who we really are.  They, too, often imagine us to be something we are not.  So, we might, with equal vigor and introspection ask the question: “Why do they love us?”  And we may be equally displeased with the answer.

As we mull all these things over, Jesus invites us in the Gospel to consider a further question: If people do in fact hate us, do they hate us for the right reasons?  Do they hate us for the same reason that people hated Jesus?  Do they hate us because we are like Jesus?  This is the deeper reality to which any response to our critics—whether they love or hate us—must penetrate.  After all, the Spiritual Exercises invite us to pray for persecution not so that we can engage in lively debate or because we are masochistic, but because we want to be like Christ, “to desire and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than wealth; contempt with Christ laden with it rather than honors, and to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such, rather than a wise and prudent person in this world.”  If we can discover that this is, at least in part, why people hate us, then we can rejoice that we are not greater than our master.

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Forgetting the Women

Today’s first reading tells the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel.  Two old men corner Susanna as she was walking through the garden, and demand sex from her.  Should she refuse, they tell her, they will publicly accuse her of having sex with another man—not her husband—and she will face a penalty of death.  Susanna chooses to take her chances with their false accusations, rather than submit to their demands.  She will almost certainly die, but prays to God for deliverance.  God sends Daniel to rescue her, and expose the men’s lies.  The men are then delivered to the same fate that they would have visited upon the innocent Susanna-death.

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I couldn’t help but think, given the coverage of the rape trial in Steubenville, OH, what the reaction would be should the priest presiding at mass choose to preach about what a shame it was that the old men suffered as they did, with no thought to what they had done to Susanna.  That, essentially, was the perspective adopted by news agencies such as CNN in their coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville trial.  It was all about how the lives of the two young men found guilty were being ruined by this verdict, and the punishment that went with it.  There was almost no mention of the victim of the rape, and nothing in the way of sympathy for her suffering, how her life had been ruined.  And, while I certainly cannot be without sympathy for the dire consequences these men’s actions have led to, the lack of any sympathy expressed for their victim was more than disturbing.

I did not have the opportunity to preach today, but I would have felt myself remiss had I not made that connection, and I hope that some priests today had the courage to do so.

Indeed, when the story of Susanna comes up and the readings, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery in yesterday’s Gospel, I can’t help but remember an “angry mass” that I experienced in my first year of priesthood, when both readings came at the same mass.  I wrote about it then:

As I considered what to say in my homily this morning, I realized that there was no way around it–today’s readings definitely had something to say about injustice against women. To avoid the issue, as some might have, seemed to me to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Today’s readings clearly had something to say to use about gender justice, and the injustice perpetrated against women by abuse of power and sinful double standards. That’s what I spoke about in my homily. I admitted that I myself haven’t exactly been the best advocate of gender justice, and have been known to roll my eyes at academic discussions of the evils of patriarchy, but that it was clear in these two readings that gender justice is something we are meant to be concerned about. We are called, like Daniel, not to stand idly be but to speak up when we see injustice being perpetrated against women. And, we are challenged by Jesus to examine the ways in which our own attitudes and opinions ignore such abuses of power, and conform to sinful double standards. And while we can often point to more egregious examples of injustice and violence against women in other countries, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing that there is plenty happening here, right in our own communities.

Honestly, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and so I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleased with the homily, though it took a lot out of me. And, as I reflected for a few moments afterward, I was confident that what I had said indeed reflected God’s concern.

And that was why I was so appalled and angered by the prayers of the faithful! Now, they come from a book which the parish bought, so no one there is to blame, but I couldn’t believe that after I had said all that, the first prayer was for “our bishops, priests, and deacons.” And it only got worse. There was not a single mention of women, never mind injustice against women. I wanted to scream! Instead, I did the more genteel thing, and added my own prayer at the end for women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. I wonder if I should have said something more, but I always want to be careful not to distract people from the liturgy of the Eucharist (and I’d already said quite a bit). And, hey, I’m saying something more now.

But I was distracted, and I wondered if people noticed that I was angered by how the prayers had indeed managed to ignore the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate omission, and whether the people who wrote the prayers had considered how out of sync that first prayer was likely to be with many a homily today. Sometimes at mass I’m taken by how well the prayers, usually written independently of me, fit with the subject of my homily. And sometimes when they don’t, I wonder if I missed something. But today was the first time that I felt the prayers didn’t seem to get it at all; that it wasn’t me who missed something . . .

These news reports coming out of Steubenville certainly missed something, and they should be ashamed.

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

“Find Christian Singles”

With targeted advertising, I often see such ads as the one above which promises to find other Christian singles for me to match up with.  I also get promises of many other things in my spam folder, which I’d rather not mention.  But the question of what it means to be a Christian single, and whether one can be content being so is an important question.  It’s also an interesting question for me because I’m a Christian who is permanently single.  So, last year, when my friend Beth Knobbe was soliciting articles for a collection of essays on living the single life as a Christian, I wondered: Do I count?

It’s an interesting question because for so many people being “single” means also to be “looking.”  Looking for that person that you might want to spend the rest of your life with, or just looking for someone whose company you enjoy who might make life a little less lonely.  But it could also mean that you are looking for God.  Which is often the case for me despite the fact that we are already “in a relationship.” But often “it’s complicated.”

For me as a priest being single means occasional loneliness, and even a bit of grief now and then over the fact that I don’t and won’t have that kind of relationship that two people who commit their life to each other in marriage hopefully do.  It also means now and then wondering, “what if . . . ?”  Yet, most of the time, my life is fulfilling enough that I’m not preoccupied with these questions.

Thankfully, Beth said that I did count, and so I did take a little time to write a brief essay, as did many others, about the experience of being a Christian single.  Those essays have been edited and collected into a book by Beth called Party of One: Living Single With Faith, Purpose & Passion, which will be published this summer.  So, if like me you have some questions about what it means to be single, and if you count, I’d encourage you to grab a copy when it becomes available, and even pre-order one now if you’d like.  Click here to access the Amazon page for the book.

You just might find that you are not so alone in the many joys and challenges you’ve discovered in being a Christian single yourself.  And for those of you that aren’t single, it might be a reminder of what it was like, or what some of your single friends might be experiencing (or not).  I know I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in the book!

A Jesuit’s Path to Priesthood

The U.S. Jesuits have kicked off a video series, following one Jesuit on his “Path to Priesthood.”

Jesuit deacon Radmar Jao shares about his vocation, his past life as an actor and his thoughts as he anticipates his ordination as a priest this June.  Check it out, and stay tuned for further updates as the day approaches!:

Remember My Voice

The Saturday night mass at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress was the end of the congress for me, since I had to fly home the next day.  And, at the end, I found myself very moved and even teary-eyed.  This had nothing to do with the fact that it was the end, or even the quality of the liturgy (which was very good), but with the man sitting behind me.

It had been a busy day in a tiring weekend.  Earlier, I’d taken the tab out of the collar of my clerical shirt, and had even found someplace to catch a brief nap.  So, I was sporting the casual, open-collar priest look.  When it came time for the sign of peace, I turned to my friends sitting next to me, and then to those behind me.  I had heard  the groanings of attempts at speech earlier in the mass, and had wondered at their source.  And here he was, a large, somewhat disheveled man who, upon seeing me turn to him, appeared very distressed.  He tried to speak, but what came out was only nonsense, and he kept pointing to his collar.  I quickly realized that the source of his distress seemed to be my open collar.  Clearly, he recognized that I was a priest who was missing something.  I tried to reassure him, even talk to him, but I could not bridge the communication gap.  Eventually, he pulled a collar tab out of his own pocket and I, as if to reassure him, took mine out of my pocket and showed it to him, but he still seemed agitated.  I looked to the people on either side of him, thinking that one of them might be a caretaker, but he seemed to be alone.

I turned back to the mass and began to wonder: Was this man a priest?  Was that what he was trying to say?  I, too, am a priest.  Or was it that I was somehow not living up to expectations by having removed my collar?  I began to think that he was a priest, though I could not be sure.  But in imagining that he was a priest, I began to consider what it might be like to be a priest without a voice.  Attending this joyous liturgy, and even mouthing some of the words of the mass to myself while doing so, I started to consider what it might be like if my voice were suddenly taken away.  What a privilege it is to “say” the mass, and what grief it would cause if that were taken way.  And suddenly I realized in a quite overwhelming way that surely there are hundreds if not thousands of priests who because of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or some other illness are no longer able to speak, or to do so intelligibly.  And like the man behind me, perhaps a priest, they heroically press on, attending mass burdened with the sadness of not being able to say it, and perhaps seeing other priests like myself who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege enough.

I restored my collar, out of deference to this man—priest or not—who seemed to be concerned (some thought it was because I was about to receive communion from Cardinal Mahony, but I must admit that this thought hadn’t even occurred to me).  I found myself being even more deeply moved by this man’s plight, whether real or imagined, as I received communion, and took time to reflect afterwards.  I determined that I would ask the man, and hopefully be able to discover whether he was indeed a priest.  And, if so, I  decided, Iwould ask for his blessing.  I found myself verging on tears as I reflected on this, and continued to enjoy the splendor and music of the Eucharist we celebrated.  I found myself wanting to reach out to this man, to know who he was, to somehow get past his broken voice and find a connection.  Mass ended, I turned, and he was gone.  I’ll never know if he was, in fact, a priest, but he was to me that day in the truth of my imagination, and in the compassion which it inspired.

I was disappointed and further saddened by his absence, but I determined to remember him when once again my lips gave voice to the mass, a voice that he helped me to appreciate, that I might lose one day too.

In Conversation about My Vocation & Writing

Fordham University has produced a series of video interviews with Jesuits at Fordham entitled “Jesuits in Conversation.”  You can now watch my approximately thirty-minute interview, in which I discuss my vocation, my ministry and my writing, in particular the then forthcoming book, Already There.  You can access the video, as well as interviews with various other Jesuits, by clicking here.

 

Sting Does Jesuit Poetry

There is another Jesuit poet besides Gerard Manley Hopkins.  British Jesuit and poet Saint Robert Southwell lived from 1561 to 1595, when he was executed during the English Reformation.  He was one of many priests who secretly ministered to the Catholics in England during this time and, like many of the others, was arrested, accused of treason, imprisoned and eventually executed.  Despite his young age and the circumstances under which he lived, he did manage to published a couple of volumes of poetry during his lifetime.  Though not as well known as Hopkins, he considered by many to be of comparable talent as a poet.

Here, the pop singer Sting does a very interesting interpretation of Southwell’s poem, “The Burning Babe“:

Rough Hands

This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast.  It was a wonderful celebration.  The church was packed.  One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed).  Everyone was well-dressed.  At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods.  Then came the offering of the bread and the wine.  Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.

There were many things to remember that evening.  I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came.  I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself.  But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected.  Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.

It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church.  As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited.  One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello.  For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of.  I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands.  These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs.  And their hands speak that.

You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”  Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment.  There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices.  Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor.  Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth.  I take no pride in that fact.  I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor.  It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it.  But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.

Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading.  How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work.  I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough.  As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that.  As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.

At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night.  At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means.  This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things.  What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other.  And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process.  In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine.  So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.

Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables.  What does that say about us and our prayer?  Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will?  There is no Eucharist without bread.  There is no Eucharist without rough hands.